Development of the Medal of Honor

Author: Ben Tamashiro, D Company
Puka Puka Parades, November – December 1981, vol. 35 no. 6

Speech given by Ben Tamashiro when Club 100 honored two Medal of Honor winners on November 12, 1981

The following is the text of MC Ben Tamashiro’s presentation:

The Development of the Medal of Honor

The idea of presenting medals to the heroes of our nation goes back to the Revolutionary War. George Washington presented the Badge of Military Merit – “for singular meritorious action” – to three of his men.

Nothing further happened till the Civil War. The serviceman’s job up to that point was mostly in such things as guarding the national frontiers from Indian raids, and the coastline against smugglers. The serviceman was unpub1icized, unappreciated, isolated.

But in the fight to preserve the Union, the serviceman was suddenly the boy next door. He was also the son of a household with many filial connections. He not only was engaged in the fighting – but sometimes doing so with little-known and unrecognized heroism.

From out of this kind of concern, President Lincoln approved the creation of the Medal of Honor. It was the only decoration until World War I.

In that world conflict, General Pershing suggested the creation of additional medals. Today, we also have the Distinguished Service Cross, the Silver Star, the Purple Heart, and others.

Tonight, the Club 100 would like to honor two of the Medal of Honor winners – two who served time with the 100th Infantry Battalion, and who, for their gallantry in action, were awarded the nation’s highest decoration.

The combat actions took place many, many years ago. But time does not tarnish the valor of the deed. Rather, underneath the patina of time, there is a new kind of luster, as we shall see.

Sadao S. Munemori

Sadao Munemori was born in Los Angeles. His father, Kametaro , had a small vegetable farm from which he extracted a passable living, selling his products to wholesalers. He died in 1938 at age 65.

His mother, Nawa, was one of those who underwent the terrible experience of the Manzanar Relocation Center. She was there when word came, in April 1945, that Sadao had been killed in battle.

Sadao was the 4th of 5 children. He was a lively youngster, precocious. His sister, Yaeko, just above him, recalls the time, when he was about 8 – and the two were engaged in their usual children’s fight. Yaeko, herself, was a tomboy. Anyway, when Sadao saw that he was losing the fight, he pouted: “You just wait. When I grow up, they’re going to name a ship after me. And I’m not going to let you ride on it!”

The Munemori children never got to swim in the ocean because it was just too far away. One day, the son of a neighboring Norwegian family asked Sadao to go swimming with him in the community swimming pool. Excitedly, Sadao grabbed his trunks and off he went with his friend. When he came home sometime later, he didn’t say a word but went straight to his room. The other members of the family wondered why. Yaeko went to check. She found him lying face down on his bed. He wasn’t crying – he just lay there. She felt his trunks. It was dry! Why, he hadn’t even gone swimming! Then where did he go? Finally, reluctantly, the young lad explained. There was a big sign at the entrance to the swimming pool: “No Japs Allowed!”

Along with 110,000 others, the Munemoris were forced to evacuate their home for the relocation center. Yaeko remembers that it was a Sunday morning in March 1942. The air was electric with fear. “Everyone was petrified,” as she recalls it.

The family had stacks of Japanese records. The parents used to love to listen to them. The children smashed them all. They smashed their cameras. They shredded their Japanese school textbooks and notebooks. A compassionate haole neighbor offered to keep their furniture and large household goods for them. The rest of their belongings they sold to scavengers for what they could get.

They had a dog but the evacuation instructions read “no pets”. So they had to tie him to a post. And one of Yaeko’s most poignant recollections of that Sunday as they rode off in the army trucks is of the dog crying. She could hear – in her mind – the crying – long after house and dog were out of sight.

It was out of this kind of environment – out of the Manzanar Relocation Center – that concentration camp, American style – that Sadao Munemori volunteered for the 442nd – was sent to Italy – and eventually assigned to Company A of the 100th.

The day was 5 April 1945. This was during the final days of the Po Valley campaign in northern Italy. Munemori was in charge of the squad because the squad leader had been injured. Though his unit was pinned down by heavy machinegun fire and grenades from an enemy emplacement, he made frontal, one-man attacks and knocked out two machine gun nests with his grenades. He withdrew under a hail of bullets and grenades. He had nearly reached a shell crater occupied by two of his comrades when an enemy grenade bounced off his helmet and rolled toward his two helpless comrades. He dived for the grenade and smothered its blast with his body. As the citation reads: “By his swift, supremely heroic action, Private Munemori saved two of his men at the cost of his own life.” He was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for his supreme sacrifice.

Sadao Munemori’s Medal of Honor was one of more than 18,000 individual decorations won by the men of the 100/442. Several correspondents, including Ernie Pyle, wrote that although the men of the 100/442 killed more than their share of Germans, it was particularly noteworthy and most of their personal bravery decorations were awarded for saving the lives of their comrades.

Last July, 14 years after the mother of the Munemoris had passed away, the ramaining [sic] members of the family decided to present Sadao’s Medal of Honor to the Hawaii Army Museum at Ft. DeRussy.

On Maui, the next day, Andy Shishido read about the presentation in the papers. He caught a plane to Honolulu and sought out the two sisters who had made the presentation to the museum. Shishido and the sisters were total strangers to each other.

With repentant heart, Shishido begged forgiveness of the two – for, if it had not been for Sadao, he, Shishido, would not be alive today. Shishido was one of the 2 men who had been in that crater when that deadly grenade came bouncing in.

But the 2 sisters told Shishido there was nothing to repent, nothing to forgive. They were happy that Sadao’s action had made it possible for him to live.

Upon hearing those words of love, Shishido said to them, “You just don’t know what your words mean to me. For 35 years, I have been carrying a cross-filled with guilt and remorse – knowing that the only reason I live is because of the death of Sadao. You have just lifted that heavy cross off my back.” And he went back to Maui.

It took a lot of guts, courage, on the part of Andy Shishido to seek out the sisters to ask for forgiveness.

One final note. In October 1947, the US Army renamed one of its cargo ships, the USS Private Sadao Munemori – and converted it into a troop transport, the first US vessel to be named after a Japanese American.

And when the USS Munemori paid its first call to Honolulu, Yaeko boarded the ship. As she set foot on the gangplank, her body was full of tingles she could almost “hear” her kid brother, as an 8-year old, saying to her, in a pout: “And-I ‘m-not-going- to-let-you-ride-on- it!”

Hershey Miyamura

Hershey says that war is full of heroes; that every soldier is a hero in his own right. And of his medal, it’s there only because someone took the time to write about that night overlooking the Imjin River, north of Seoul, Korea. But before we get into the Korean War, let’s back up a bit to the war that had just preceded it – WW II.

Hershey was drafted in January 1944, in Gallup, N.M. He was 18. After about 5 months training in Ft. Bliss, Texas, and Camp Blanding, Fla., he found himself in Camp Shelby, Mississippi. His first night at Shelby stands out in his mind because a big fight took place that night between Hawaii boys and the mainland boys. It had something to do with racial slurs whose terms Hershey did not quite understand yet – “buddahead” and “kotonk”. But both groups cooled off after the fight. There were no more.

At Shelby, he was ticketed as a replacement for D Company of the 100th. But getting there was something else:

When the company he was training with was shipped overseas, he was held back because he was too young

When a new company was formed, he had to take the machine-gunner training all over again. This time he made it as far as Ft. Mead, Md., but in the final physical, the medics discovered that he had hernia. So back he came to Shelby where he was operated on, spent 17 days in the hospital

Upon discharge, he found himself with another Company D. On this 3rd time around, he made it overseas. Except that when he got to nothern [sic] Italy and finally hooked up with Co. D of the 100th, the war in Italy was about to end.

Upon his return to Gallup, he felt he might as well make something of his yet untested military training, so he enlisted for a 3-year hitch in the Enlisted Reserves, then consented to have his name placed on something called the Inactive Reserve.

To him, inactive meant just that – nothing was going to happen. But he guessed wrong. Within 3 months after the Korean War broke out in June 1950, he was back in uniform and in no time found himself in Wonsan, Korea, as a member of Co. H, 7th Regiment, 3d US Division.

From Wonsan, the 7th worked its way 200 miles northward to the Yalu River, the dividing line between China and N. Korea. China had entered the war in October and after its first attack had withdrawn back to the Yalu. Now, in December, they seemed to be pointing for their second attack.

Says Hershey, “From where we were entrenched in the hills, we could see through our binoculars the Chinese massing on the other side of the river. We had a feeling they were going to attack. All we could do was dig in and wait. ”

They did not have long to wait. “They came down like they were ants off a hill,” said Hershey. “Looked like millions of them. At that time, we did not know it but 1 in 10 had a weapon; the others were carrying wooden rifles!”

Wooden or not, the United Nations forces were overwhelmed by sheer numbers. And to make it worse, in the confusion, they were being strafed by their own planes. So in the cold of the December snow, it was every man for himself. And they filtered back, in little groups, and even in ones and twos, to the port of Hungnam, from where they were all evacuated to Pusan, 600 miles down south. There, the forces regrouped, then worked their way up north again.

The 7th Regiment then dug in on the mountain top guarding the northern approaches to Seoul. There, Miyamura’s squad dug a long trench. He positioned a light MG to the left and a heavy MG on the right. The riflemen were in between. There were a total of 12 men. Said Hershey, “Actually, we were spread too thin. We were covering an area that normally a platoon would cover.”

It was the night of April 24, 1951; pitchblack; and the only light came from the reflection of the Imjin River in the distance.

Suddenly, the stillness and blackness of the night were broken. Bugles sounded – and the enemy came charging up the hill. Flares brightened up the night. All hell broke loose. Everything that could be fired was firing.

Let me turn to the citation for what happened then:

“Corporal Miyamura, a machinegun squad leader, aware of the imminent danger to his men unhesitatingly jumped from his shelter wielding his bayonet in close hand-to-hand combat killing approximately 10 of the enemy. Returning to his position, he administered first aid to the wounded and directed their evacuation. As another savage assault hit the line, he manned his machinegun and delivered withering fire until his ammunition was expended. He ordered the squad to withdraw while he stayed behind to render the gun inoperative. He then bayoneted his way through infiltrated enemy soldiers to a second gun emplacement and assisted in its operation. When the intensity of the attack necessitated the withdrawal of the company Corporal Miyamura ordered his men to fall back while he remained to cover their movement. He killed more than 50 of the enemy before his ammunition was depleted and he was severely wounded. He maintained his magnificent stand despite his painful wounds, continuing to repel the attack until his position was overrun. When last seen he was fighting ferociously against an overwhelming number of enemy soldiers.”

But the citation doesn’t tell all. The men kept firing, throwing grenades. But the enemy still came on. For some of Hershey’s men, this was too much. They panicked. They ran. They abandoned their posts. And Hershey’s heart went out to the remaining few. He told them to go, too. And he battled on, alone – to give his men time to escape.

Hershey has no explanation as to how come he got out of this alive. It was almost unbelievable – that he had fought his way out. Someone had recognized the plight of the outpost and the call had gone out for artillery fire to help stop the enemy. But it was only when the shells began falling around him that he decided that it was not worth a plugged nickel to be blasted heavenward by his own friendly fire. Hell, I might as well get out of here, he said. Which he did.

But then he was captured when he stopped to take a rest. Together with other prisoners, he was marched all the way up north – and finally to a prison camp 20 miles this side of the Yalu.

His award of the Medal of Honor was approved by President Truman, but he received the medal in a White House ceremony from President Eisenhower; the reason for the interval being that he was a prisoner of war.

Of his POW experience, he watched men deteriorate and die. They were mostly the very young or those who just couldn’t stand up to prison regimen. For those who wanted to live, there were many things to look forward to: some exercise in the form of chopping trees; taking chili pepper – which grew wild out there – and mashing them into a Tabasco-like sauce to make their bland millet and sorghum take on some taste; and keeping the mind open and active so that there would be no room for the propaganda diet which was a prescribed part of their regimen.

The Army, of course, could not publicize his award of the Medal of Honor while Hershey was a POW. But when he finally came home, after the war, all Gallup turned out to honor its native son.

Hershey was the 4th of 7 children in the Miyamura family. After trying his hand at several jobs, the father settled in the restaurant business. All the children helped at the restaurant but that was as close as they got to him – because he was too busy for them. So the children turned to their mother for love and comfort.

When Hershey was 11, the church sent him to a camp in California for the summer. While there, he got word of the death of his mother. “I couldn’t believe it,” says Hershey. Grief-stricken, he came to resent the Christian way of life – for having taken away his mother whom he loved so very much. He turned his back against the church.

Until one day – on that long march up north as a prisoner – tired, hungry, worn out from a wound in his leg – he was on the very verge of giving up – he could hardly take another step.

“I had illusions of pancakes smothered with butter and dripping syrup all over,” says Hershey. “I even found my self reaching out for them.”

But the mirage turned for real – in the form of a North Korean mother – who gave him sustenance, at the risk of her own life. She could have been shot for it.

So there – in enemy held territory – when he felt that his life had practically come to an end – the touch of that North Korean mother was like a breath of fresh air – blowing away the lingering bitterness in his heart against Christ – for having taken away his mother when he was yet so young. “I came to believe in the Lord.”